"I take orders from the Octoboss."

The Primevals

THE PRIMEVALS is about an expedition to a forgotten land in search of ancient creatures untouched by evolution (but a little bit by aliens), and the incredible thing is that we as viewers are witnessing a similar miracle. The Ray-Harryhausen-esque fantasy film was first conceived and pitched in the late ‘60s by stop motion animators David Allen, Dennis Muren and Jim Danforth, and then had various false starts in the ‘70s and ‘80s, so by the time it was filmed by Allen with funding from Charles Band in 1994 it was already a throwback. Then Full Moon Entertainment’s financial situation stalled the completion of the animation, and the movie was left in limbo when Allen died of cancer in 1999.

You’d think that would be the end of it, but fortunately Allen left the storyboards and puppets with the right person – his friend Chris Endicott, an FX artist for many Full Moon and Marvel pictures. Another couple decades later, through Indiegogo funding and the hard work of many of Allen’s animator and VFX friends, the movie was completed and premiered at the Fantasia Film Festival last summer. I was able to see it a few weeks ago at the Seattle International Film Festival, and I had a great time with it.

It’s now on VOD, but if somehow you get a chance to see it on a big screen, don’t miss that opportunity. It’s a low budget affair but man is it cool to see what is clearly a small puppet representing a large creature being projected at an actual gigantic size. More importantly, it’s a movie with lots of sincere but hammy exposition leading up to little encounters with animated beasties that, if excerpted and strung together, would be a short film. On home video my smart-phone-damaged brain might’ve lost patience, but with an audience chuckling non-judgmentally at the adorable corniness and marveling at the monsters whenever they appear it felt like a real event for the weirdos who care about this shit (of which I am a card carrying member). I regret that I resisted my impulse to applaud the Full Moon Pictures logo at the beginning.

The story centers around a Yeti, an adorable red-furred guy who kinda reminds me of Beastman from Masters of the Universe (Christian name: Steve Beastman). A group of Sherpas in the Himalayas try to capture him, but he breaks the ropes and kills one of them before being buried in an avalanche.

I thought they were gonna freeze him, but he’s dead, next seen stuffed and on display at a college in the States. Claire Collier (Juliet Mills, The Nanny and the Professor, JONATHAN LIVINGSTON SEAGULL, WAXWORK II: LOST IN TIME) is a professor with a connection to the sherpas, who for some reason smuggled the corpse to her and allowed her to dissect it, proving the existence of Yetis to the world. Still, no one believes there are any more to be found, so it’s an act of defiance when she and Matthew Connor (Richard Joseph Paul, REVENGE OF THE NERDS II: NERDS IN PARADISE, VAMPIRELLA, OBLIVION) – a student whose Phd she rejected because of his it-turns-out-correct paper on the existence of Yeti – go looking for them. First they go to Calcutta to find a legendary guide named Rondo Montana (Leon Russom, DOUBLE DRAGON, THE PHANTOM, TRUE GRIT). They can’t find him until he rescues them from three stereotyped muggers. That scene and the limited English of the deceased sherpa’s younger brother Siku (Tai Thai, “Vietnamese Boy,” UNIVERSAL SOLDIER) are also from a land time forgot.

Needless to say they do find another Yeti, but also a race of hominids (ape people) portrayed by costumed actors, and a glass-domed tower that leads them to a hologram of a grey alien and eventually a race of savage lizard people who I believe are the titular Primevals. At any rate they’re my homeys now. When the team theorizes that they’re a race of drones brought by the aliens to do the work, how can you not side with them? They remind me of the aliens from MARS ATTACKS!, just these lanky, slithery, bug-eyed bastards wiggling around grunting little Donald Duck sounds at each other, putting our live action leads in cages, throwing spears at them, pulling levers on a laser cannon thing, etc.

The most elaborate part is an arena with a full audience of those guys, many of them moving. But it’s the simple pleasures, you know? A shot with a stop motion lizard fighting a costumed ape. The Yeti turning against them and fighting a mob of them, picking one up and hitting the others with him. And also non-animated goofiness like Claire turning for one last appreciative look at their discoveries as they’re fleeing, only to be hit with an arrow out of nowhere. Then making a death bed speech with a line that goes something like “Emotions – they’re beautiful, aren’t they?”

I really enjoyed the weirdness of this being a newly unfrozen 30 year old movie that would’ve already seemed ancient at the time. Never mind the stop motion, just think about these scientist characters and the way the story is told as compared to JURASSIC PARK, which came out a year before this was filmed. And here we have a movie that opens with an old-timey shot of fake snow blowing over a painting of mountains. By the way it’s one of Richard Band’s better scores, that really helps to set the retro adventure tone.

I didn’t want to frontload this review too much, but let me tell you some of Allen’s history to show you where this is coming from. He was one of those monster kids doing little stop motion movies at home and then graduating to Hollywood and becoming one of the go-to guys when somebody needed some stop motion shots. He did “special photographic effects” for that movie EQUINOX (1970), then FLESH GORDON. LASERBLAST was where he hooked up with the Band empire. He did stop motion on THE HOWLING, Q: THE WINGED SERPENT, the monkey in THE HUNGER, the George Miller gremlin part of TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE, he worked on THE STUFF and some giant ILM movies (YOUNG SHERLOCK HOLMES, *batteries not included, WILLOW, GHOSTBUSTERS II). And he did the ant in HONEY, I SHRUNK THE KIDS! Important work.

But he and his company David Allen Productions found their most steady work doing animation for all these Charles Band productions: TRANCERS, DOLLS, GHOULIES II, PUPPET MASTER, ROBOT JOX, BRIDE OF RE-ANIMATOR, SUBSPECIES, PREHYSTERIA!, SHRUNKEN HEADS, and so many more. Also FREAKED! Basically, he was the king of b-movie stop motion in the ‘90s, so of course THE PRIMEVALS was his passion project. And it’s beautiful to see his dream resurrected.

Allen is not the only FX legend who worked on this. He wrote the script with Randall William Cook, a fellow LASERBLAST/Q/Full Moon animator who became an animation supervisor for Weta Digital during the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy. Model maker Dave Carson is an ILM guy who worked on THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, DRAGONSLAYER, THE GOONIES, etc. Matte painter Jena Holman also did ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK and was visual effects supervisor for MIRACLE MILE. Five time Oscar winner (RETURN OF THE JEDI, COCOON, WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT, DEATH BECOMES HER, FORREST GUMP) Ken Ralston is one of the animators.

I also spotted Phil Tippett’s name in the credits among the crew who did pre-production on the movie in its 1978 incarnation, and I’m sure he was surrounded by other luminaries. THE PRIMEVALS is kind of the other side of the coin to Tippett’s MAD GOD. It’s another decades-in-the-making, seemed-like-it-would-never-be-finished, could-never-live-up-to-your-imagination dream project, but Tippett was pouring in every crazy artistic ambition The Man would never let him do. Allen’s began as too ambitious to be funded and then became too square, so it’s another side of the stop motion animator personality – the warm nostalgia for the movies he probly saw on Saturday afternoons, either at matinees or on TV, that made him want to make monsters. And if you see it you’ll want to make monsters too, or at least be friends with them.

I like to buy back issues of the genre magazine Cinefantastique when I find them for cheap. I recently got one with a cover story on THE PRIMEVALS, with the idea it had been trying to get off the ground for ten years, was finally happening, and they were going to cover its production in-depth as it happened. That was in 1978! Other upcoming movies covered in the issue include ALIEN and DAWN OF THE DEAD. This one took a little longer. It could be worse, though. The same issue has an article about another stop motion movie called WAR LORD OF TERRA (from Allen’s colleague William R. Stromberg) that didn’t happen at all.

The article is by one of the animators on the movie, Paul Mandell, and it goes into detail about Allen preparing a show reel to pitch a version called RAIDERS OF THE STONE RING. Hammer had agreed to produce it and were confused why he kept spending his own money on demo footage. The plot of RAIDERS sounds very similar to the finished movie except instead of the ape men there’s a society of surviving vikings – in fact, the weird ape men houses in the finished film were made back then, and they were supposed to be viking huts. The other big difference was that Allen wanted a scene where pterodactyls attack a zeppelin, but to his frustration Hammer got a little too excited about that and wanted to retitle the movie PTERODACTYL VS. ZEPPELIN.

Allen felt compromised by the studio’s changes to the story, so when they decided not to do it he was kind of relieved. He said, “It all seemed too superficial. It had no substance. The [Edgar Rice] Burroughs element was what I came to like least about it. It was sort of a pulp romance; I think that’s one reason why I moved away from it. I felt that Burroughs just didn’t have enough intellect in his material to get my senses totally involved… I wanted my film to be real. I wanted it to be credible. Burroughs heroes are incredible. In that respect, I felt that the original concept was just too juvenile for my own tastes.”

Sorry to say this, but Allen’s description of what the movie was supposed to be is pretty much the exact opposite of how it plays in 2024. According to the magazine, we’d be “asked to believe it, not merely accept it as something out of a fantasy world,” the latter being how Allen described the stop-motion-infused movies we’re all now comparing PRIMEVALS to. “I’d hate to try and sell it that way. Ray Harryhausen now operates in that fashion, and in some respects it makes it easier to put special effects across. But I’m trying to make THE PRIMEVALS work on a credibility level, and that’s not easy. There’s never been a picture like this. The last reel is totally fantastic in aesthetics, but wedded to a plot and premise that is rational.”

Well, shit. Sorry, Mr. Allen. That did not come to pass. Another quote in the article serves as a better prophecy: “But I think the personality of this picture will really triumph over any possible shortcomings.” That one did come true. I love the personality of THE PRIMEVALS, and I look forward to a long friendship with these little jerks.

This entry was posted on Monday, June 3rd, 2024 at 7:18 am and is filed under Reviews, Fantasy/Swords. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

15 Responses to “The Primevals”

  1. grimgrinningchris

    June 3rd, 2024 at 5:44 pm

    Vern. I’m always stunned by the number of Cinefantastiques you’ve run across. I feel like I should have been digging so much harder all these years. I’ve only ever owned two full vintage issues. The 79 Donner Superman cover and the 81 Harryhausen (which ties in here a bit) retrospective for the release of Clash Of The Titans. Though I guess those are good ones to have. Got them both at a zine swap in the late 90s for about a buck each and havev to have read both cover to cover 100 times since.

  2. Yeah, all the early ’80s ones I find are mindblowing, you keep flipping through and thinking THAT came out around the same time too!? In this one they’re anticipating “STAR WARS II” (mentioned because they know it will have some stop motion in it).

  3. grimgrinningchris

    June 3rd, 2024 at 6:15 pm

    V- really caustic, bordering on grumpy and pretentious and snobby reviews. But GREAT articles and BTS photos prolly never seen anywhere else at the time.

    I’m really interested in this movie now and maybe trying ti track down some more hard copy issues of the magazine from that era too. I remember one of the issues I have having a big piece on Starcrash and what a POS it was but how impressive the stop motion was on such a low budget. Likely the Harryhausen one.

    Did you ever read Cashiers Du Cinemart? That was a solid movie zine I always used to pick up in the late 90s/early 00s at Tower when I lived in New Orleans. I’d like to find archives of that too. It covered a ton of movies that made their way into various RedLetterMedia shows years later. Like that dumb movie with the penis alien in the box with all the knockoff Tarantino gangsters- was it just “The Box” or something generic like that?

  4. Great review, a wonderful reminder of what we all love about exploitation and genre films. Stuff like this makes the real movie lover almost shed a tear.
    I’m headed to Phoenixville this weekend for Exhumed Films’ EX FEST, twelve straight hours of exploitation movies or an earlier era, original prints, no titles revealed beforehand. And I feel like it will be a similarly special experience as it was seeing this movie with a crowd.

  5. Yeah, I’m gonna see the shit out of this the second I get the chance. I recently watched the ROBOT JOX blu-ray, which had a segment on David Allen, who seemed like a guy who loved his craft a hell of a lot more than he craved success. While his peers moved on to big productions and became household names, Allen kept working in the low-budget realm, where he could be more hands-on and have creative control. I got the sense that a lot of the bigger names sort of envied him after they moved out of the workshop and into the office. They made the big bucks but he had all the fun.

  6. Chris – Yeah, the reviewers are such grumps, it’s so funny. One thing I love about Cinefantastique and also Fangoria of yore is having such thorough behind the scenes articles on movies that don’t end up becoming loved over the years but are interesting. Of course you can get everything you need to know about the making of ALIEN but when you find really detailed coverage of SPACEHUNTER or DOLLY DEAREST or something it seems like such a treasure.

  7. Sadly we don’t have a SciFi/Horror magazine culture here like in the US. I feel like we didn’t have such magazines until the mid 90s, although in all fairness some of them were pretty good, especially when they talked about the films that ran at Sitges or Fantasporto and I sometimes knew years in advance about a really cool flick that would go straight to video here.

    Oddly enough there is one piece of trivia that I only know from the magazine SPACE VIEW. It’s not even on Wikipedia or IMDb and doesn’t seem to be common knowledge at all: Did you know that they wanted H.R. Giger to redesign the Borg for FIRST CONTACT? In one issue they reported it as done deal, then in the next issue printed a letter from Giger in which he confirmed that he was indeed asked, but negotiations fell through.

    Anyway, about PRIMEVALS, I surely gonna check it out, as someone who loves those old Harryhausen joints. And that it was done as “real” movie and not as some post-ironic nostalgiaturbation bullshit is a huge plus, even if it might not be as exciting as I expect it to be. Something tells me it will only be released here in one of those expensive limited edition mediabooks and then fade into obscurity. I can’t ever imagine one of our streamers pick that up.

  8. grimgrinningchris

    June 4th, 2024 at 8:17 am

    Vern- Perfect example. I had an early 90s Fangoria that had pages and pages of coverage on the scifi-gorehorror movie THE BORROWER. It may have even been the cover story. And despite being directed by our beloved John Mcnaughton and starring Tom Towles and Rae Dawn Chong (whose ex husband I spent an evening with last month- go me) I don’t know anyone who has ever even seen the movie (including myself).

  9. I’ve seen it!


  10. I saw it too decades ago on late night TV but can’t remember anything about it, except that it has here the interesting title ALIENKILLER.

  11. grimgrinningchris

    June 4th, 2024 at 9:28 am

    And of course I have found the two people on the planet… and both are on Vern’s sight.

  12. grimgrinningchris

    June 4th, 2024 at 9:35 am

    More to point, I just found that there is a Cinefantastique piece on THE BORROWER from 90 where Mcnaughton and Chong hve a war of words over the script, movie and production… Now I need to find that whole piece!

  13. Dreadguacamole

    June 5th, 2024 at 4:29 am

    I’ve seen it as well – I remember thinking it did not stack up to THE HIDDEN at all. Which is probably unfair – few things do.

    It’s worth pointing out that neither CJ nor I were in the US at the point it came out, so it might have been easier for us to get a hold of it. Also, I had what’s probably the same issue of Fangoria, so I was actively looking out for it.

  14. Grim, you are in luck…if you want I have that old issue and remembered that stuff from it. I can always take photos of it and upload them somewhere. But really all of that is just one paragraph…Chong isn’t quoted in the piece, it’s a McNaughton interview. She slammed the movie on The Pat Sajak show and he responds in the piece, saying she didn’t belong in a smaller movie because she was too Hollywood, and says straight up that if she thought the script was so bad why did she do it? He says “Why go on tv and admit you’re a whore?”

    Chong seems like an asshole. I remember she slammed Oprah literally for being too dark-skinned and playing the game too much, saying she’d be a “house you know what” but she didn’t say you know what if you know what I mean.

    Yeah there’s a difference in a huge career like Whinfrey and you Chong, playing the game helps a little!

  15. So I just saw this…I mean, it’s fun to see stop motion creatures running around. But weird that THIS was the passion project? This fairly leaden thing? I’d think an animator would have way more cool ideas and creatures than some lizard dudes and a giant snowman. A Harryhausen movie would deliver like six awesome monsters. Funny to see the stark difference between this an Mad God, made by a real interestig artist…not to say this guy should have been aiming for THAT, but I dummo…something more interesting? Even as a kid I don’t think this would have grabbed me and I was a huge stop-motion buff. To the extent when I heard they were using computers for the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park I was actually sad because I knew that day, that was the end for stop-motion.

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